Whispers in the Tall Grass by Nick Brokhaus

Nick Brokhausen’s Whispers in the Tall Grass (Casemate, 216 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) finishes the story he began with his 2005 war memoir We Few. In the new book, Nick, Mac, and Cookie continue to lead a team of Montagnard soldiers in recklessly waging war against the North Vietnamese Army.

They operate primarily in Laos as part of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). They gather intelligence, destroy communication networks, and expose concentrated enemy forces to attacks by Army and Air Force firepower. A prisoner snatch is their ultimate success.

Brokhausen’s stories are highly detailed; their action is frantic; and three-day stretches of fear often prevail in enemy-controlled areas distant from normal combat. Usually the goal is vague. His team’s job, he writes, entailed “dancing in the dragon’s jaw.”

In reviewing We Few, I noted that Brokhausen mixes irreverence, perversity, and sarcasm with touches of gonzo journalism. He tempers that style in Whispers, which makes the book an enjoyable read. His command of language shows originality, particularly when he describes military feats and individual emotions. As in one of his best lines: “Arc Light will come in and turn the area into a new time zone.”

Off duty, Nick, Mac, and Cookie are certifiable enemies of civility. They challenge pettiness among officers, aggression by MPs, and a misguided tactical experiment of using HALO parachuting for SOG combat insertions. You have to admire Brokhausen and company’s fortitude as they ignored convention and accomplished formidable tasks on and off the battlefield.

Throughout the book, Brokhausen expresses strong feelings about comradeship between warriors, especially his relationships with the Yard fighters.

After being refused an in-country extension, he expresses closing sentiments about warfare with insights that brought back forgotten memories about how it felt at the end of my combat life.

Nick Brokhausen  definitely has his stuff together.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hawk and the Dove by Tom Baker

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With his big novel, The Hawk and the Dove (Page Publishing, 493 pp. $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Vietnam War veteran Tom Baker draws a thread through more than a thousand years, tying together examples of military courage by men and women who find themselves engaged in conflicts of different kinds in different places around the world.

The book opens in the middle of a Viking raid, then moves to a time when British troops are trying to hold back Napoleon’s advancing forces. In its second half, the book takes us into the American Civil War, World War II, and then the American war in Vietnam and the 1990s civil war in Rwanda.

What ties the stories together are appearances in each one of a hawk as well as dove, which almost seems to be the hawk’s mate. Sometimes the hawk attacks people, sometimes it protects others. Some people direct it to attack and the hawk responds. Sometimes it influences battlefield decisions. Which leads to the question: Is it a reincarnated warrior?

When some Vikings are asked why they pillage and rampage, the response is because it’s what they’ve always done. Baker also writes that “every little boy wants to be a warrior.”

When the second chapter moved to the Napoleonic Wars I was happy to see that Baker wrote it without making it read like just the same people from the first chapter were saying the same things they did centuries earlier. Chapter Two—which contains one surprise after another—transports the reader to a different place and time, beautifully described, though the warriors still struggle with big and small questions about war and peace.

In Chapter Three we encounter a Confederate troops fighting against the Union Army during the American Civil War. While the big reasons for this war are up for debate, most of the southern troops say they are fighting because their land had been invaded by Lincoln’s army. Here we encounter ambushes, amputations, field hospitals, and prisoners of war. A character dreams of Vikings, tying us to the book’s first page. The pairing of the hawk and dove seems more than ever to be expressing a future possibility of human beings eventually learning to coexist peacefully.

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The final two chapters deal with episodes during World War II and in the Vietnam War (briefly). Things finish up in the east-central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. Throughout the book it’s made clear than women can be guided by warrior spirits just as men can. Toward the end, things become mystical, but Baker makes it work.

A summarizing quote from the book could be: “The quest for peace is an ever-renewed task, calling forth brave men and women in every generation.”

Baker’s novel is an enjoyable, thoughtful, reading experience.

–Bill McCloud

The Life of an Airborne Ranger Book Three: Everyone Comes Home by Michael Kitz-Miller

 

Michael Kitz-Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for three years, leaving the military as a 101st Airborne Division Sergeant E-5. The Life of an Airborne Ranger, Book Three: Everyone Comes Home (Xlibris, 476 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $23.93, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in his series of Airborne ranger books. It is filled with action, along with endless details about the nature of being a career soldier in the Army taking part in conflicts in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iran Hostage, Kuwait, and Iraq.

I had never read anything about our war in Grenada, so that section of the book especially interested me. Kitz-Miller, who died in July, portrays that war as a fucked-up mess from the get-go. As an example of how unready we were to fight that war, he points out that no official maps were available. The novel’s hero, Jack Donovan, has to obtain and use tourist maps to try to find the college campuses he is supposed to be protecting and evacuating.

The 44th Airborne Division and the 45th Infantry Division are fictional units invented by the author to protect the guilty. Kitz-Miller’s heavy reliance on the teachings and writings of Ayn Rand are interesting, but are not the bible of Objectivism, her philosophic system. Rand, who once visited West Point and delivered a lecture there is mentioned often in the novel, but she’s not the only one. Audie Murphy gets a major shout-out when Donovan is described as the most decorated soldier of the modern era.  Murphy is put in the shade by Donovan who seems to get five and six of most major medals.

This massive novel follows Jack Donovan’s career up to his promotion to four-star general. The details are engrossing and well-described and held my interest. The narrative is spiced up by the adventures of Donovan’s Welsh terrier and the academic progress of Donovan’s college professor wife.

I recommend this novel to readers who are interested in Army careers and what it takes to rise to the top in the modern military. I am glad I decided that a military career was not for me. Spec.5 was as high as I went. That happens to be where Jack’s career starts in this book. Right where mine ended.

—David Willson

 

The Aviators by Rex Gooch

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Rex Gooch writes about what young men do when they are carefree and voluntarily go to war. In their world, life becomes simply us-against-them and survival equates with victory.

Gooch, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells all about that in The Aviators: Stories of U.S. Army Helicopter Combat in the Vietnam War, 1971-72 (Lighthorse Publishing, 316 pp. $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). The book consists of stories Gooch has collected from fellow helicopter crewmen in the Lighthorse Air Cavalry, the 17th Aviation Group, 18th Aviation Company who served during the Vietnam War in IV Corps at Vinh Long and Can Tho.

Kevin Kelly, “the best Cobra pilot in the troop,” as Gooch puts it, perfectly summed up their attitude. In control of a weapons system with overwhelming firepower, Kelly said, “I felt invincible.” But after being shot down twice, a shaken Kelly felt his “invincibility had been replaced by a more experienced outlook.”

These young men—mostly in their late teens and early twenties—endured a baptism of fire that revealed their mortality, Gooch says. Simultaneously, it bonded them for life.

The Aviators has two themes. First, the book records a short period of combat by an organization with a long history. Second, it describes Gooch’s progression from new copilot to aircraft commander. After a year of flight training, ROTC-graduate Gooch—nearly fearless and eager to fly in combat—went directly to the war zone.

Gooch tells stories with a style that puts the reader in the boots of pilots, crew chiefs, and gunners. Detail is his forte, but it can grow tiresome when Gooch repeatedly walks men through mundane activities such as getting out of bed, eating breakfast, and performing pre-flight chores.

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In describing the flight phase of missions, however, Gooch provides details that turn war stories into vivid teaching lessons. He slows the chaos of combat to an understandable speed and examines events from multiple angles. His account of the shoot-down of Chris Rash exemplifies how Gooch weaves interviews with fellow flyers into in-depth analyses. His stories about coordination within crews and between aircraft provide classic examples of teamwork.

Gooch explains topics such as Vietnamization, the Easter Offensive, and Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia with indented paragraphs jammed into the middle of the text. Old timers might see this as distracting because it slows the flow of a story, but young readers should appreciate the information and will learn from views into the past.

Chapters conclude with short biographies of men cited in the stories. Many pilots pursued post-war flying careers in and out of military service. As for Rex Gooch, he left the Army in 1974 and attained executive rank in Industrial Engineering and Human Resources corporations until retiring in 2001.

The Aviators is Gooch’s second contribution to Army helicopter history. His first book—Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio—was a 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal recipient.

Rex Gooch’s website is www.fifthcavalry.com

—Henry Zeybel

Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

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John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson